Login Tab

From grey to green

Are we building a future in which everyone of a certain age is 'moved on'? In an article for the Sydney Morning Herald last year, comedian Wendy Harmer wondered whether our elderly citizens will be "parked away out of sight and mind in new developments on the city fringes built on razed bushland where there's no public transport, culture, street life or community?"

A report released in January suggests this may be the case. Demand Analysis of Housing for Older Australians analysed census data from 2006 to 2011 and found a consistent trend of those aged 65 and over moving further away from the CBD to urban fringe locations - into suburbs where they may have access to fewer services and fewer social connections. Why is this happening? Because the land values in the inner and middle suburbs of our cities make it too expensive to build retirement living developments.

Clearly, this isn't sustainable. Over the next 20 years, the number of Australians aged 65 and over is expected to increase by 84 per cent. The 2013 Sustainable Australia report found that this change in demographics will place significant budgetary pressure on the aged pension, health costs and aged care facilities. It will also have a dramatic impact on the way we design and construct our buildings and our cities.

The sheer numbers of people aged 65 and over will drive demand for retirement living - and we need to ensure these developments are both livable and sustainable. Truly sustainable communities are not just socio-economically diverse, but age diverse too. It's important to integrate retirement living into developments, communities and cities so that we don't have 'age ghettos', and so that each age group - children, young adults, singles, couples, parents with children and elderly residents - can contribute to their community. If inner city developments are purchased only by 30- and 40-something professionals with no kids, then the community will be deserted during the day, and there'll be no neighbours to collect your mail and water your plants when you go on holidays, for example. If we agree with the idea that 'it takes a village to raise a child' then we must create communities where children grow up with older people so they can get a sense of where they've come from and where they're going.

Last month, Stockland's Selandra Rise became the first retirement village in Australia to be awarded a 4 Star Green Star rating. We worked with Stockland for more than a year to develop the first custom-made Green Star rating tool for an entire retirement village, and considered not only the design, construction and ongoing sustainability of 202 homes, 12 apartments and the community centre, but also the practical and effective use of open space and residents' proximity to shops, medical facilities and public transport.

Stockland has estimated that the green features will save residents an average of $700 each year on their water and energy bills. Stephen Bull, Stockland's Chief Executive, Retirement Living has said that while the sustainable approach will help residents reduce their cost of living, "at the heart of the project is our desire to create a healthy and engaged community, which emphasises physical activity, social inclusion and safety, diversity and affordability."

Certainly, affordability is a critical issue in the provision of sustainable housing for seniors - and we've all seen tabloid headlines such as "seniors go hungry to pay power bills". Last year, Sustainable Retirement Living: What Matters? (PDF, 0.2MB) surveyed retirement village residents to investigate their attitudes to sustainability. While 92 per cent of those surveyed believed it was important to protect the environment, and 69 per cent were specifically concerned about the impact of their energy consumption on the environment, only 23 per cent were prepared to pay for more environmentally-sustainable options.

Hans Kang, General Manager of Building Services for The Whiddon Group, understands this better than most. Whiddon, a non-profit organisation providing residential care, independent living and community care services for older Australians, has set goals to reduce water and energy consumption, access products and services from accredited green suppliers, and exceed legislated environmental requirements.

"When people are at the end of their lives, they aren't necessarily thinking about living sustainability," Hans says. "Comfort is more important. Our challenge is to find sustainable solutions that don't have a noticeable impact on comfort or quality of life."

One of Hans' clever ideas was to install trickling showerheads that use just nine litres of water a minute, but fit them with aerators that create lots of air bubbles and give a feeling of luxury so that residents feel they're not missing out. Another was to create Whiddon's own line of T5 lighting, featuring reflector lenses that emit additional light and support people with low vision.

"As a non-profit organisation, we're always looking for creative, low-cost strategies with a short payback period," Hans explains. "Our residents are on small, fixed incomes, so a 10-year payback on solar panels doesn't stack up. Instead, we're looking to roll out a program to paint the roofs of all residential care homes with Dulux InfraCOOL Technology. This reduces temperature and radiant heat by up to seven degrees, and will bring down power bills while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

We also need to look at how we design homes that can adapt to our changing needs as we age. As National Seniors Australia (PDF, 0.8MB) observes, "the residential environment is closely linked to an older person's capacity to remain independent, participate in community activities and feel secure and in control of their daily activities."

Livable Housing Australia (LHA) says that it is 22 times more expensive to retrofit a home so that a resident can 'age in place' than it is to get the design right from the outset. Amelia Starr, Executive Director of LHA, has observed that "we design and build our houses for a 'Peter Pan population'" that never gets old. And so, when we do get old, we undertake retrofits that bring with them both a financial and environmental cost.

LHA's Livable Housing Design Guidelines (PDF, 4.2MB) support the design and construction of homes that are more adaptable, versatile and sustainable, and a number of GBCA members are working with LHA. Lend Lease has already achieved LHA certification (PDF, 0.2MB) for one retirement living development, and Stockland has signed on as a Corporate Partner (PDF, 0.2MB).

The Green Star  Communities rating tool also features a number of credits which can drive better outcomes for senior citizens. The Liv-3 'Healthy and Active Living' credit rewards projects that deliver effective planning, urban design and landscape architecture that support physical activity and social engagement. Project teams are encouraged to design public parks with flat and supported walking areas and regularly-spaced seating. The Econ-5 'Affordability' credit rewards projects that ensure a percentage of housing stock is affordable. And the Liv-7 'Accessibility and Adaptability' credit awards points based on the percentage of dwellings compliant with the Livable Housing Design Guidelines.

The Retirement Living Council's Executive Director, Mary Wood, says that "helping people to downsize to accommodation more appropriate for their physical needs will lower public health costs, and ensure older Australians retain their independence for longer - a better result for everyone." The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare argues that most people want to 'age in place' - that it's less about staying the family home and more about staying close to family and friends, cultural activities and familiar services.

Our challenge is to create communities that connect, engage and empower our senior citizens. When we can do that, we'll have built better cities for all Australians.

Share your thoughts with me on Twitter - @RomillyMadew.